Preparing for death

By Margaret Treadwell

My mother regularly tells me she is ready to die. She says, “Ninety-seven is too old to live when physically you don’t feel like doing anything! I know I could stop eating but I enjoy my food too much. Maybe I could stop being curious about my family and friends?” But that’s just not who I am.” I tell her I’ll support her decision no matter what, and we talk about her faith in reuniting with loved ones in Heaven. We usually end this conversation with the words of her beloved caretaker who tells her, “Mrs. McDonnell, I don’t think when you die is up to you.”

“Maybe all of us have more say about our death than we know,” I muse. I tell her about a colleague whose family members appear to draw a very thin line between life and death. One uncle returned all his library books, checked no more out and died the next week. Another wanted only to spend Christmas with his sister and died sitting in her comfortable living room chair.

“How do you think our family has handled death in previous generations?” I ask. Mother says, “No one ever talked about it. Mamaw (her mother) lived to 94 and we all thought she’d live forever. Daddy was sick so long with Parkinson’s pain that he was frustrated and difficult at the end. I’m beginning to understand him better these days!” So much for that.

But a few days later, Mother calls to tell me about a vivid dream: “Mamaw and my sister Beth (both deceased) came to invite me on a trip to Europe. I told them I wasn’t feeling well with a stomachache and would stay home to take care of Daddy. After they left, I found the front door of his house locked so I couldn’t get in to help.”

Knowing that many people unconsciously preparing for death have dreams about going on journeys, I ask, “What do you make of it?” After a thoughtful pause, Mother says, “I think I made a mistake. I should have gone with Mamaw and Beth.” Taking a deep breath to ground myself in being her daughter rather than a therapist, I say, “I love you, Mom. Remember more dreams and tell me.”

Mother was just as eager to die eleven years ago. “I have no reason to live,” she told me after my father died of the Alzheimer’s disease she had faithfully nursed him through. Without thinking I shouted, “Don’t do that to me, Mother! I don’t have any siblings!” A few days later, I amended my outburst to the phrase I’ve been repeating ever since: “Mom, I support you in any decision you make until you won’t or can’t make a good decision for yourself. Then, I’ll do what’s best for me.”

So far this agreement has translated into my attempts to be emotionally present while physically distant as Mother chooses to remain in her own home where I grew up in Sheffield, Ala. When the going gets rough with health setbacks, Mom pulls through with one certainty: “I do NOT want to move to Washington, D.C.”

Except for weekly visits to Gay’s Hair Salon and doctors unable to relieve her arthritic and other pains, she is thoroughly homebound surrounded by caretakers and hospice workers with whom I keep in touch. Younger neighbors, friends and clergy from her cherished Episcopal church often visit, and she is endlessly interested and invested in their lives. I call her home ministry “Flo’s salon.”

Increasingly helpless in her ongoing fragility to help her have a reason for living, I listen. I try to live in the moment of each long distance phone call to appreciate the gift of being a non-anxious presence with her now. After listening, I ask one question per conversation about her extended family in Mobile, a favorite topic. How did they show love? How did she spend time with her grandparents? How did they play? What about meals together? How did they grieve? Any more family secrets you haven’t told me?

I travel as often as possible to my hometown that is harder to reach than Europe. Recently I celebrated Mom there with my family – husband, son, daughter, their spouses and her three great grandchildren. We had a blast and she let us know when enough was ENOUGH, like the time she turned on the evening news to invite Brian Williams (NBC News anchor) into our midst. He immediately broke up the party!

On our good days, Mom and I are doing great. But I always wonder what more I can be and do. So many of us are pioneering similar situations with our elderly parents that I’m asking you my readers a favor: What questions do you wish you’d asked your parent before he or she died? Did you leave anything undone that you wish you’d done? If you’ll email me , I’ll gather and include your questions and thoughts in a future column, which will be useful to others and me.

Margaret M. (Peggy) Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher in private practice. She writes regularly for Washington Window.

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